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Long Literary Shadows On Nobel Shortlist

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Long Literary Shadows On Nobel Shortlist

Awards Season

Long Literary Shadows On Nobel Shortlist

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The winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Literature was announced this morning. It is Swedish poet, Tomas Transtromer.

Joining us, now, is NPR's Neda Ulaby. Good to have you, Neda.


NEARY: And, a Nobel bridesmaid finally won the prize.

ULABY: Yes. Transtromer has long been mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel. And when the announcement was made this morning, you heard something highly unusual – Swedish people screaming with joy.

NEARY: Really? He's very popular there?

ULABY: He's wildly popular.

NEARY: So tell us a little bit more about him.

ULABY: Well, he was born in Stockholm in 1931, to a fairly well off and literary family. He's been a star in Sweden since he was 23 years old, when he published his first volume of poetry. But he's also had a very long and distinguished career as a psychologist and a social worker. He works with troubled kids and convicts – or he did, rather, before he had a debilitating stroke in 1990. And he's a pianist, as well. He used to perform, occasionally, during his readings, but since his stroke, he still plays the piano but only with one hand.

NEARY: Very multitalented. Did his training as a psychologist figure into his writing in any way?

ULABY: Yeah, he's interested in moments of self assessment, and the space between conscious thought and the subconscious. He was drawn to surrealist writers from an early age and his own work treads the line between wakefulness and dreams. He's a spellbinding and quite haunting poet. I'm going to read you this really short poem he wrote about getting into a car crash. OK.

(Reading) The approaching traffic had huge lights. They shown on me while I pulled at the wheel in a transparent terror that floated like egg whites. The seconds grew. There was space in them. They grew as big as hospital buildings.

NEARY: Wow, that's quite a poem - that idea of floating in egg white. So, he is the seventh European to win the Nobel Literature prize in the last 10 years. Has this Eurocentric focus drawn any criticism at all?

ULABY: Oh yes. Now, Transtromer, I think, deserved the prize. He's an extraordinary poet with a huge following here. He's good friends with Robert Bly and he's very influential, both in the United States and around the world. But it's hard not to think about the words of the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy a few years ago, when he criticized American writers for being too isolated and insular. After seven European writers being awarded the Nobel for Literature in 10 years, you have to wonder if those words might not be applied to the Swedish Academy itself.

NEARY: Well, thanks for joining us this morning, Neda.

ULABY: Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: NPR's Neda Ulaby, talking with us about this year's winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. He is Swedish poet, Tomas Transtromer.

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